Magazine article Commonweal

A Turn That Went a Long Way: Remembering Michael Novak

Magazine article Commonweal

A Turn That Went a Long Way: Remembering Michael Novak

Article excerpt

Any adequate account of the swirling currents in Catholic intellectual life during the decades following the 1960s and Vatican II--think names like Wills, Greeley, Berrigan, Ruether, Hesburgh, Buckley--would have to give a major place to Michael Novak, who died at age eighty-three on February 17.

Novak was a frequent contributor to Commonweal from the late 1950s to the middle '70s. In these pages and in the National Catholic Reporter, Time magazine, and elsewhere, he was a skillful exponent of the work of Vatican II and a passionate champion of the radicalism arising from campus opposition to the war in Vietnam. From 1967 to 1971, he was listed on Commonweal's masthead as "Associate Editor (at large)," although, in my experience, he had no real presence in editorial matters. He did write a regular column for the magazine from 1972 to 1975. I was also a Commonweal columnist during those years.

Our columns sometimes became duels. Novak was beginning his gradual, then sharp, turn to the right. That turn went a long way. Last November, having been noticeably missing from the contingent of conservative Catholic intellectuals publicly opposed to Donald Trump, Novak welcomed Trump's victory as a decisive smashing of "Progressivism," indeed as nothing less than "a work of Divine Providence."

That species of rhetorical (and intellectual?) excess was not atypical for Novak. It often took the form of gross generalizations about broad categories of people and their motives, psychologies, and cultures--liberals, radicals, "elites," ethnicities, nations, religions. This was true during his relatively brief radical years as well as his conservative decades, and this tendency frequently undercut his real insights and accomplishments.

Following his death, friends and admirers testified to Novak's kindness, unselfish mentoring, tireless determination to make the world a better place, and devotion to his faith. Despite his long and my much longer association with Commonweal, my personal contact with him was surprisingly minimal. I recall one dinner at the Novak home, a debate at Holy Trinity Church in Washington, passing hellos at conferences. But nothing I experienced contradicts these warm testimonies. My intellectual and political differences--focused not on his theological or ecclesiological positions but on his social and economic ones--were quite another matter. But it was not uncommon to hear people sharing my criticisms refer to him as "sweet."

There is no question that Novak's defection from liberal Catholicism or, as he was wont to say, from the "left," was an important moment in the postconciliar American Catholic story. From his position at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Novak led well-organized attempts to counter the U.S. Catholic bishops' pastoral letters on nuclear defense and on the economy. While traditionalist Catholics fought internal church aggiornamento, Novak helped form a Catholic neoconservative opposition focusing on public policy and general culture.

For Novak this shift in outlook and allegiance was major. Decades later he would still replay his renunciation of the illusions and evils of the "left" like an evangelical testifying to his "come to Jesus" moment. His forsaken left-of-center companions had not seen the shift coming (or the extent of it), were baffled by it, and sometimes, mirroring Novak's own weakness, attributed it to less-than-worthy personal ambition.

No doubt Novak's ambition was thwarted by successive disappointments in academia, in the Democratic Party, and in literary culture. Certainly he wanted to be influential in the circles of the powerful and clearly enjoyed it when he succeeded, but his ambition never appeared to be of the self-seeking or material variety. Novak simply hoped to get a hearing for people whom he felt liberals ignored or scorned, Americans still close to ethnic, working-class, and religious roots. …

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